- Tea Sets and Tyranny: The Politics of Politeness in Early America by Steven C. Bullock, and: The Trouble with Tea: The Politics of Consumption in the Eighteenth-Century Global Economy by Jane T. Merritt
Tea, Trade, Consumption, Manners, Taste, Economy, Emotion
Steven Bullock and Jane Merritt have given us two beautifully written, deeply researched, and methodologically important books that trace the interconnections between society, politics, and economy in eighteenth-century North America. Specifically, they demonstrate how taste and desire, emotions and economy shaped critical developments in American history. Despite their titles, however, only Merritt explores the history of tea and tyranny. Jane Merritt's tightly argued study of the political economy of tea illuminates how American concerns about monopolies [End Page 163] and imperial power manifested itself in the rejection and repatriation of tea. She shows how a variety of interpretations of monopoly and free trade ignited the consumer boycotts and non-importation movements of the 1760s, the Revolution, and the trade and fiscal policies of the early republic. Bullock's study is also concerned with power struggles in a fragile empire, but he traces how a century's long critique of tyranny influenced social interactions, political style, and emotional experiences. Difficult to put down, these refreshing accounts clarify a great deal about everyday life in the eighteenth century and provide new interpretations of how a polite and commercial people slowly shifted from colonial subjects into American citizens.
On both sides of the Atlantic, scholars such Brian Cowan, Richard Bushman, John Brewer, Leonore Davidoff, and John Styles have shown how elites, the middling classes, and even some plebian consumers cultivated politeness in their households and in new public spaces and institutions. Bullock's new book supplements these studies, as well as intellectual histories of the decline of absolutism, and literary approaches to the cultures of sympathy. Focusing on the first half of the century, Bullock nails down the elusive yet critical concept of politeness by unpacking curious but very telling episodes in the lives of five famous and infamous men and one woman. He clarifies with great precision the rise, uses, and decline of new ideals of authority that emerged in the wake of the late-seventeenth-century metropolitan political crises and several local crises in the North American colonies. To put it simply, Bullock demonstrates how colonial elites drew on "transatlantic values and practices" that "prized a polished, genteel self-presentation," and "rejected aggression and undue anger" (9). Instead of arbitrary violence, elites sought to pursue "soft" forms of power in which they cultivated affection rather than demanded obedience.
Arranged chronologically and drawn from several colonies, Bullock's book begins with the seemingly uncontrollable rages of Frances Nicholson, who held numerous political offices between the 1690s and 1720s. Bullock focuses on Nicholson's time as governor of Maryland and Virginia when his enemies and even some of his friends found his temper and displays of physical violence a sign of irrationality and even insanity. Bullock shows, however, that Nicholson's rages expressed his views on authority and were a product of tensions produced by the British imperial state's growing desire to "rule" the colonies. Governors such as Nicholson were caught between their loyalty to the crown and [End Page 164] the empire and the resistance of powerful colonial leaders used to operating with relative freedom. So Nicholson's rages reveal broader concerns about how to rule in a new imperial framework.
Other chapters revisit the histories of Thomas Nairne, South Carolina's Indian agent, who was accused of high treason in 1708; the texts and actions of William Byrd II, who led a contingent of Virginians as they surveyed the boundary line between Carolina and Virginia; the reaction of Jonathan Belcher, governor of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, to his son's attempt to commission an engraved...